5 Ways to Prevent Struggling Readers from Experiencing Shame & Anxiety in the Classroom

by Angie Barnett | Oct 25, 2019

5 Ways to Prevent Struggling Readers from Experiencing Shame & Anxiety in the Classroom

“Horrified,” “brutal,” “nerve-wracking,” “awful,” “fear every moment” are a mix of terms and phrases used by struggling readers with dyslexia to describe their school experience in a two-part episode of Podclassed.

In the episode, host Laura Axtell points out that the vividness of the memories and the intensity of the words used by the adults in this episode to describe their school experiences mimic the pattern of recall of individuals who have experienced trauma through war, abuse, or other painful experiences.


Although watching a student struggle in school may not seem as devastating as other traumatic experiences, the feeling of failure and shame can produce a level of anxiety and depression that can be extremely difficult for these students to bear and overcome. These are powerful and difficult realizations. However, there are also a lot of things that can be done to prevent these feelings and experiences for struggling readers.

Related article: Taking the Fear Out of Dyslexia

Screen every student for dyslexia

By screening each of your students for dyslexia, you open up several doors for at-risk students. First, you can point parents in the right direction for diagnosis when a student does show the risk factors of dyslexia. For many students, knowing the cause of their difficulty is freeing. When they know that their difficulties aren’t the result of stupidity but that their brains simply work differently, they are often empowered to learn how to work with their brains and embrace the unique abilities that result from dyslexia.

Second, you can identify which students are at-risk for reading difficulties. By knowing your at-risk students, you can pay extra attention to them during reading instruction and quickly intervene when they struggle with a lesson. If your school has an RTI or other reading intervention program in place, you can refer at-risk students for additional intervention. The earlier a student receives intervention, the higher the likelihood of reading success. Early reading intervention can prevent the emotional trauma from a prolonged struggle.

Here is a free, non-diagnostic dyslexia screener that you can use to screen your students.

Learn your student’s story

When struggling readers describe their turning point with reading or school, it often comes down to one teacher or adult who took the time to understand what was going on. It can be difficult with a class full of students, but if you take a little extra time to get to know your struggling students, you could be the turning point they need. Whether it’s helping them find the source of their difficulties or if you can teach them strategies that can help them work through their struggles—it’s worth the time. It could save them years of struggle and embarrassment.

Create a safe learning environment

No one wants to struggle. It can be embarrassing and even humiliating for students to show their weakness in front of their peers. Because of this, it’s important to teach students empathy and understanding when a student does learn differently. In the video below, a high school student discusses the difference it would make if his peers and teachers understood what dyslexia was (watch part of his interview below).

In Podclassed, one of the students mentioned the amount of growth he experienced through vulnerability during his school years, but that the ideal would be to be vulnerable in a safe environment. Struggling with a skill forces vulnerability, so if we can eliminate the shame and embarrassment that comes with this forced vulnerability and replace it with respect and understanding in the classroom, struggling students will have more positive school experiences.

Related article: Students With Dyslexia Aren’t Dumb. Teachers Can Help Them See That.

Redefine success and intelligence

Almost every adult interviewed about their reading difficulties on Podclassed explained that the way they got through school was by finding a new way to define success. They would pin their success to something outside of school like sports or art. Another student said that she told herself that if she wasn’t the worst student in the class—if she did better than just one other student—she could tell herself she was a success. We don’t need to teach students to compare themselves, but we can learn from this pattern. It’s important to find a way for struggling students to feel successful and intelligent in the classroom. Here’s an example of how a student with dyslexia can benefit from project-based learning:

The most important thing you can teach struggling readers is that learning to read is not a sign of intelligence. There are a lot of successful people who struggle to learn to read. All of the adults interviewed on Podclassed were very articulate, hard-working individuals with a deep comprehension of emotional, social, and conceptual problems. You can show your students examples of celebrities and scientists or other role models who also struggled with reading to show them that it does not limit their future or define who they are.

Keep learning and take advantage of professional development opportunities

One of the interviewees, Curtis Pons, was appalled to learn that not every teacher is taught how to teach reading. As a struggling student, he expected that his teachers knew what they were doing. When he saw his son go through the same broken system, he was disappointed. There are wonderful teachers, and there are effective training programs. It’s not an educator’s fault if they weren’t taught the most effective strategies for teaching reading, just like it’s not a student’s fault if his teachers weren’t taught these strategies. The important thing is that you can learn how to properly teach reading according to what research has found to be the most effective—explicit phonics instruction. This helps not only students with dyslexia but every student. You can continue to learn and take advantage of professional development opportunities. You can be the turning point for struggling students.

Watch Curtis Pons story:

Learn how Reading Horizons prepares teachers to successfully teach students with dyslexia (and all students) how to read using a research-based reading curriculum that engages students in structured literacy instruction.

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